Report finds potential for Minnesota bioplastics industry

By Erin Voegele | August 05, 2011

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, a Minnesota-based research organization that provides assistance to the state’s industries and entrepreneurs, recently published a report that outlines the potential role of biobased products in the Minnesota economy. The report, titled “Biobased Products: Focus on Bioplastics, Minnesota’s Opportunity & Challenge,” was developed for AURI by Russell Herder, a Minneapolis-based marketing and communications research firm.

The report presents findings of a survey that was conducted on a selection of Minnesota manufacturers regarding their current use of biobased materials—primarily bioplastics. The survey also addressed the market drivers and challenges regarding adoption and use of the materials as well as manufacturers’ intent to increase use of bioplastics.

According to the report, the world market for packaging alone is currently valued at $429 billion, and is projected to grow to $500 billion over the next few years. The study states that sustainable packaging options are projected to represent 32 percent of this market by 2014. Plastic-based packaging, which represents 35 percent of materials used, is currently expected to be the fastest growing sector within the sustainable packaging market. The report indicates that Minnesota manufacturers seem to understand this trend, with 81 percent of survey respondents stating that it is at least somewhat important for their businesses to produce environmentally sustainable products.

However, the report also shows that although interest in the use of bioplastics exists within the state, awareness is lacking. Just over a third of the state’s plastics manufacturers reported feeling uninformed about the use and opportunity for biobased material. The rest of the state’s plastics manufacturers indicated they anticipate increasing their use of biobased materials.

While the surveyed manufacturers reported an increase in customer inquires about the use of bioplastics and other biobased materials, they also reported some concern regarding the use of biobased inputs on product performance, warranty claims, manufacturing processes and costs. Furthermore, 80 percent of those surveyed noted an interest in learning more about utilizing biobased materials in their operations.  

The authors of the report also point out that Minnesota seems to be well positioned to become a leader in the bioplastics industry. This potential is attributed, in part, to the fact that the state already features clusters of renewable products companies that convert agricultural materials into biofuels, biobased chemicals and bioplastics. The report states that more than 75 organizations in Minnesota are currently involved in some form of biomass catalysis and synthesis, with at least a dozen companies currently producing biobased plastics and polymers. In addition, the study estimates a total of 80 organizations within the state working are in the materials science field. The study further notes that the state has the elements needed to build a successful bioplastics industry, including intellectual capital, a spirit of innovation, an environmental mindset, rich agricultural resources, a receptive manufacturing sector, and proven success in fostering biocatalysis.

The report also describes several actions that could be taken to help develop a bioplastics industry within the state. First, the authors note that education is needed. This includes a wide range of initiatives, from ensuring educational institutions provide students with necessary skills, to outreach programs aimed at manufacturers, retailers and the agricultural community. Second, the authors call for collaboration and support initiatives. This includes nurturing the environment for investment, finding ways to leverage existing biorefining foundation, and financial support measures to encourage demonstration-scale projects and scale-up. Finally, the authors recommend working to remove barriers to development, such as creating a clearer and more positive regulatory environment and supporting the development of recycling and composting systems for bioplastic materials.  

"The report makes it clear that Minnesota manufacturers are intrigued by what biobased materials can offer in terms of managing fluctuating petroleum costs and even creating a market niche for themselves," said Teresa Spaeth, executive director of AURI.  "But they want to understand more about the characteristics, performance, manufacturing processes and market opportunities.   It is important that education and networking opportunities be developed to help Minnesota manufacturers get the information they need so they can be on the vanguard of this emerging market."

A full copy of the report can be downloaded from the AURI website